2019 Summer Ball Notes

Collegiate Summer baseball is a different animal. The bats are wooden, the rosters are fluid, and the locales can be far-flung. The leagues provide college players the opportunity to work on their game, stay in shape, and have a change of scenery before heading back to campus. Summer ball results can be deceiving. You never know what a guy is working on that might impact their performance. The level of competition of the league should also be considered. Also, some teams are much better at publishing stats than others.  What we are saying is, that when it comes to Summer baseball, don’t take the results with a grain of salt, take the top off the shaker and apply liberally. Still, it’s fun to follow and certain trends do emerge. Here are some observations from Summer 2019:

Speed doesn’t slump – After posting an OBP of .384 during the 2019 season, Todd Elwood spent considerable time on the base paths for the Forest City Owls of the Coastal Plain League. Todd slashed .329/.401/.403 in 40 games while swiping 26 bases in 27 attempts and driving in 15 runs. Todd finished 5th in the Coastal Plain League in SB’s.  The Niners will be looking for more of the same this season from the speedy senior outfielder.

Junior Jake Whitcomb also spent a lot of the Summer on base for the Mooresville Spinners of the Southern Collegiate Baseball League. Jake slashed .382/.538/.529 with 10 RBI and 14 stolen bases in 26 games on his way to an SCBL All-Star nod.

Replacement Power – A key issue for the Niners heading into the Fall will be replacing the offensive power lost to graduation. Harris Yett (.325/.392/552) & Dominick Cammarata (.293/.398/.512) combined to drive in nearly 1/3rd of the Niners’ runs last season. Part of the answer appears to be incoming juco catcher Craig Keuchel, from Hill College in Texas. In 31 games for the Danville Dans of the Prospect League, Keuchel (.250/323/.607) hit 9 HRs and drove in 29 runs. Keuchel was also selected to the Prospect League All Star Game this summer.  How this translates to the collegiate game will be worth watching once practice cranks up.

Szczypinski Stays the Course – After last season there is no doubt that new head/pitching coach Robert Woodard will be looking to reinvigorate a staff that was touched up at times. One of the staff’s more consistent performers in 2019, Patrick Szczypinski posted a nice strings of outings for the Forest City Owls on his way to earning a spot on the CPL All-Star roster. The numbers aren’t overwhelming (2-2, 3.98 ERA, 31.2 IP) but he continued to show the durability that suggests he could be in the mix for a starting role in 2020.

Junior pitchers Ryan Czanstkowski and Spencer Ard were likely looking to put the 2019 campaign behind them. Both seem to have done so with the Asheboro Copperheads of the CPL. Ard made 22 appearances out of the pen, tossing 42 innings with an ERA of 4.29. This earned him a record of 4-0 with 2 saves. Perhaps the biggest stat for the senior lefty was his 1.77 K/BB ratio. Czanstkowski tossed 16.2 innings in 9 appearances while earning 5 saves. His K/BB was a robust 2.66. Walks were a major detriment to the staff last season. For the pitching staff to rebound from that performance, these two seniors will need these Summer performances to carry over.

Summer stats can be seen by clicking the links below below:

2019 Summer Stats – Hitting

2019 Summer Stats – Pitching

 

Coaching Staff Analysis

Off-seasons rarely go the way you think they will. This one certainly did not. At the end of the 2019 season it was clear that the build up to 2020 would be one of the most important in recent memory. Coming off a subpar season (21-31-1 overall, 11-18-1 C-USA), it would be important for the program to reload and bounce back.  Then on June 14, 2019, Head Coach Loren Hibbs announced that he would be leaving the program after 27 seasons to become the Assistant Athletic Director of Baseball Operations and Player Development at Wichita State University, his alma mater. Hibbs and new WSU head man Eric Wedge have a long-standing relationship dating back to Wedge’s days as a player for the Shockers while Hibbs served on the staff of the legendary Gene Stephenson. While Wedge is no stranger to managing at the MLB level, this is his first time as a skipper at the collegiate level. There’s no doubt that Hibbs’ experience will be invaluable as the Shockers rebuild after a rough stretch in the years following Stephenson’s retirement in 2013. This is a great move for Coach Hibbs, but it immediately cast a shadow of uncertainty over the baseball program. Charlotte baseball would have its first new head coach in 27 years. Who would it be?

Charlotte 49ers Director of Athletics Mike Hill answered that question on June 29th. Hill tapped Robert Woodard to lead the program forward. A native of Charlotte, Woodard went to Myers Park before staring at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he is their all-time winningest pitcher. After a three-year stint in the Padres organization, he began his coaching career in Chapel Hill during 2011. He spent the 2013 campaign in Wilmington coaching the Seahawks’ pitchers before becoming the pitching coach, and eventually recruiting coordinator, at Virginia Tech. Woodard returned to his alma mater in 2017 where he led a nationally recognized pitching staff. Now the rookie head coach has returned to his hometown as the skipper of the 49ers. For a detailed introduction to Coach Woodard’s approach to the game, check out this interview from December of 2018 by clicking here.

Building a Staff

Woodard wasted little time in assembling his first coaching staff. He will work with the pitching staff himself, which freed him up to add a number of skill sets to the staff. Bo Robinson agreed to stay on with a promotion to Associate Head Coach. Charlotte fans certainly don’t need to be introduced to Bo. A local product himself (South Meck), BoRob was an All-American for the 49ers and has his #4 retired by the program. After an eight year professional career, Robinson returned to the Charlotte area to serve as an instructor at On Deck Academy, a baseball development program for prep players. Ironically, it was there that he coached a young Robert Woodard. Robinson returned to campus in 2012 and has been in the Niner dugout ever since. Retaining Robinson is a great start to the Woodard era. Bo is extremely well thought of in the local baseball community and is a natural salesman/representative for the 49ers brand. His presence also provides stability for the roster and recruiting efforts during this time of transition. In addition to all of that, Bo is an excellent hitting instructor that has played a key role in developing the bats of guys like Netzer, Nichting, Jarrett, Hampton, Yett, and others.

Baseball Staff

Woodard’s choice for assistant coach/recruiting coordinator is an unfamiliar name to many 49ers fans, but Toby Bicknell is a known quantity in baseball circles. Another local guy (Charlotte Christian), Bicknell is returning home after spending the last three years as Texas Scouting Director for Prep Baseball Report. After his playing career at Wingate, he coached locally at Providence and Myers Park, in addition to serving as an instructor at On Deck Academy. Among the players coached by Bicknell was, you guessed it…Robert Woodard. On the collegiate level, Bicknell has coached at Clemson, Davidson, Air Force, and Kentucky. To listen to an interview with Coach Bicknell where he shares his thoughts on scouting, recruiting, and more, click here. A fun fact about Bicknell’s time at the Air Force Academy: in addition to baseball, he taught Combatives and Water Survival. Umpires, you have been warned. 

The final two spots on staff are both being filled by faces familiar to 49ers fans. Ross Steedley has been named as the third/volunteer assistant. Ross doesn’t need much introduction as he played catcher for the 49ers from 2008-2012, earning All-Conference honors in 2011. Off the field, 49er fans might remember Ross from when he co-hosted the Basketball Madness event at Halton Arena. Another local product, he played his high school ball at East Rowan. Steedley had been on staff at Garnder-Webb since 2015 and served as recruiting coordinator since 2016. Rounding out the staff is Tyler Simmons as Director of Player Development. Tyler transitioned into this role after being on staff at Charlotte since 2017 as third/volunteer assistant. Simmons is also a Charlotte native and played at Charlotte Christian under his father Greg Simmons, a NC Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Famer in his own right. Prior to joining the 49ers staff, Simmons enjoyed a 4 year playing career at Wingate.

What to Expect

On the Field-  As mentioned earlier,  Coach Woodard will also be taking on the role of Pitching Coach for the 49ers.  Having two former catchers on staff in Steedley and Simmons, will certainly assist in handling the staff.  Simmons served as the 49ers Catching Coordinator in previous seasons and Steedley worked with catchers as an assistant at Gardner-Webb.

Bo Robinson will continue to serve as Hitting Coach and working with the infielders. The All-American 3rd baseman will continue to put his mark on the 49ers offense and defense.  Steedley also served as Hitting Coach at Gardner-Webb and will also contribute on the offensive end. Coach Bicknell has experience in many different areas at the college level. He served as Hitting Coach and Defensive Coordinator at Air Force, Offensive & Defensive Coordinator at Davidson, and coached hitters and infielders during his time at Clemson.

Recruiting – As with any staff transition, it will take some time before Woodard’s plan for the program will be fully realized. Still, certain priorities are already emerging. First, recruiting, recruiting, and recruiting. You can’t teach talent and Woodard’s hires have made it abundantly clear that he intends to land his fair share of it for the 49ers. In addition to himself, Robinson, Bicknell, and Steedley all have experience as recruiting coordinators. That’s a lot of recruiting experience. Bicknell’s addition is particularly interesting, as he is well-traveled in national recruiting circles. We may well be preparing to cast our nets even wider out on the trail.  Bicknell’s recent experience in Texas is intriguing since the Conference USA Baseball footprint spreads into Texas with Rice and UTSA being annual foes. It’s also worth noting that Steedley’s efforts are curtailed by NCAA rules that govern the conduct of volunteer assistants, but having his experience can only help.

Niner fans are used to hearing Will Healy and Ron Sanchez talk about the importance of aggressively recruiting our home market. You can add Woodard’s name to the list. Just look at the staff he has assembled. Each member is from the region and already possess deep ties in the local baseball community. Not that the 49ers haven’t been recruiting the Charlotte area. A quick check of the rosters from previous years will prove that. However, Woodard appears to have doubled-down on the strategy. This staff was built with Charlotte in mind. Charlotte fans should be excited about how this staff plans to capitalize on the amount of baseball talent coming out of the region each year.

Analytics – For most, analytics in baseball came to the forefront when Michael Lewis’ 2003 book was adapted to the big screen in 2011’s Moneyball. The use of  data analytics has been and continues to be a source of debate. Any Niner baseball fans unfamiliar with the concepts should probably think about doing some research. Now, don’t get us wrong, it’s not like the program hasn’t been using data analysis in recent years, because they have. However, fans should expect an expansion of the 49ers analytics program. Don’t be surprised to see the Niners employ more aggressive defensive shifts and utilize pitching strategies designed to induce ground balls hit into the teeth of that defense. If you want to do some homework on Woodard’s experience with analytics we suggest starting with this 2018 Baseball America article here.  From there, you might want to look into the two books mentioned in the article: Travis Sawchick’s Big Data Baseball and Brian Kenny’s Ahead of the Curve. Both books are highly informative and will change the way you watch baseball if you have yet to brush up on analytical baseball.

Player Development – As previously mentioned, Tyler Simmons now has the title of Director of Player Development. While that’s a new role for the program, it is not a new position. This is the former Director of Baseball Operations position added to the staff last season. Focusing on successful player development will only serve to enhance the product on the field and increase results out on the recruiting trail. The good news is that some of the infrastructure needed, such as the new indoor practice facility, is already in place.

In an effort to enhance the program’s player development efforts, the staff has traveled to St. Louis to spend time at P3 (Premier Pitching Performance). P3 works with prep, collegiate, and professional pitchers to develop the physical, mental, and technical aspects of their game. In addition to their staff, P3 has recently installed a biomechanics lab to help pitchers focus on their mechanics and throwing efficiency. This looks to be time well spent and should pay dividends for the program going forward. Read more about P3 here.

What Does it All Mean?

February feels very distant right now, but it will be here sooner than we think. In the meantime, Fall practice should be very interesting. That should include two more exhibitions against regional DI teams, an option that the NCAA made available last year. If you recall, the 49ers scheduled games against Davidson and at Virginia Tech. The game against the Hokies was cancelled after Hurricane Florence struck the East Coast. Alas, Niner Nation had to settle for a blowout win over Davidson at The Hayes. 

As we move closer to Fall practice, we’ll provide you with more information regarding the team and what to look for as the Woodard era begins. In the meantime, we believe the take-away from this Summer to be that Mike Hill is serious about baseball. You would expect that from someone that spent 25 years at the University of Florida. He began demonstrating commitment to the program soon after his arrival with the addition of the operations position. Now, signs point to continued investment in the program. Assembling this staff took resources. So did sending the staff to St. Louis. Keep in mind that the administration is set to release its comprehensive facilities master plan in the coming months. There are bound to be upgrades for baseball included in the plan. A video board, a beer garden, and upgraded lights wouldn’t be bad places to start, but we’ll see how it shakes out. This looks to be a promising time for Charlotte Baseball. Let’s get going.

Week 1 Recap

With week one in the books, the Diamond Niners find themselves 3-0 on the young season after sweeping the Delaware Blue Hens.

Keys to the Week

Loren Hibbs – Coach Hibbs notched career wins 799 & 800 on Friday. It is no surprise that Hibbs deflected much of the credit for the achievement to the many players and coaches that he has worked with during his 27 years on campus. Still, this is a big deal and he has a right to be proud. Congratulations, Coach.

Starting Rotation – A big question coming into the season was who would the staff send to the mound opening weekend. It was not surprise to see Jr RHP Matt Brooks (6.2 IP, 7H, 2ER, 6K, 2BB, W) get the ball on Friday. After a rough first inning, Brooks settled in looked more than capable of leading the staff as the go-to Friday guy. Sr LHP Joey Cooner (3.2, 5H, 1ER, 2K, 1BB) started game to of the DH on Friday and did a solid job before giving way to the pen. Fr
RHP Will Palinkas (4.1 IP, 3H, 2ER, 7K, 3BB) came out firing on Saturday. The rookie racked up 3Ks in the first inning on his way to a good start to his collegiate career.

Options – What this team has that others have lacked in the past is options at multiple spots around the diamond. Third base, first base, right field, and DH shifted this weekend depending on starting matchups. Fr Josh Haney (3B), Sr Jesse Gonzales (1B), and Jr Todd Elwood (DH) appeared in the lineup to face the right handed starters from Delaware. Elwood started t DH in Game 3. Sophomores Tate Pennington (3B) and Jake Whitcomb (RF) got the nod against Delaware’s lefty starter in Game 2. Dominick Cammarata shifted from RF to 1B against the LH starting pitcher. Rafi moved from DH in the 1st 2 games to playing 1B in the series finale. As you can see there are lots of moving pieces in the line-up and defensively.

Defense – The Niners only made 1 error on the weekend, turned a few big double plays, and Yett threw out 2 runners at second. Patrick Wheeler made some nice plays in CF saving runs. Solid defensive performance overall.

Offense – To the team’s credit, they ground out 3 wins for the weekend. When hits were needed, they came though in the clutch. However, the boys will be looking to knock some rust off going forward and get the bats going after totally 20 hits for the series.

Players of the Week

Offense – Rafi Vasquez (.500, 5H, 3R, HR, 2 RBI). Honorable mention to Harris Yett (3 hits, HR, 2 RBI), Tommy Bullock (.300, 3H, 2R, 2B, 2 RBI). Rafi gave fans a glimpse of what he is capable of with a towering HR to the opposite field on Friday. Word is the ball that Yett crushed to left field on Saturday wound up in Toby Creek.

Pitching – Colby Bruce (4.2 IP, 0ER, 2H, 3Ks, SV) This was a tough choice between Bruce and Chase Gooding (2 IP, 1H, 3K, 0ER, 2 SV), but Bruce got the nod this week due to his gutty performance on Friday where he appeared in both games of the double header.

The Week Ahead

The Niners have 5 games coming up this week.

Clemson – The game at Clemson on Tuesday has been moved up to Monday at 4 PM due to impending weather. The Tigers were ranked 19th in the preseason coaches poll and picked to finish 3rd in the ACC’s Atlantic division. The Tiger are 2-1 after their series with South Alabama this past weekend. The Tigers’ key player is All-American SS Logan Davidson, of Providence HS in Charlotte. There’s a deeper connection here, as Logan’s father, Mark Davidson, was a part of the original 49ers squad before transferring to Clemson and going on to a career in MLB.

Canisius – The Golden Griffs will come to Charlotte for 4 games this weekend after dropping 2 of 3 to NC Central last weekend. An NCAA team a year ago, they are picked to finish 1st in the MAAC again this season. They are led by preseason all-conference picks SS Connor Morro and OF Mark McKenna.

C-USA

The league opened up with a 25-11 mark this weekend. Southern Miss carried the banner for the league by sweeping Big 10 foe Purdue. Rice opened the Matt Bragga era by taking 2 of 3 from our old A-10 conference mates, Rhode Island. ODU dropped 2 of 3 to Big South opponent High Point. It will be a few more weeks before we get a more accurate reading on what the league’s strength of schedule may look like. Not a terrible start overall.

Charlotte Baseball 2019 Season Preview

It was a busy off-season for Coach Loren Hibbs and staff as they continue to steward the program. Several key developments promise to pay dividends for years to come. First, the long-anticipated indoor practice facility opened, giving the program a much-needed player development tool. You’ll see the new facility down the right field line at Hayes Stadium. Also, the Niners were able to add a staff member to direct baseball operations. While the position is new, you’ll recognize Charlie Muchukot as he has been a regular fixture in the dugout as a student manager for the last several seasons. Both of these commitments to baseball on behalf of the athletic department help bring the Niners into line with many of  their regional and conference peers as the program continues to grow.

The following is an analysis of the what the Diamond Niners could look like as Coaches Hibbs, Robinson, Doty, and Simmons lead the team into the 2019 season. Make sure to take all of these predictions with a grain of salt. We’re just speculating and let’s face it, we’ve been wrong before.

Key Losses

As the 2019 season prepares to kick-off, the Niners have some key holes to fill. LHP Josh Maciejewski (9-2, 2.25 ERA) will no longer anchor the pitching staff as Friday night starter after graduating and being selected in the 10th round of the MLB draft. The Niners will also need a new center fielder after junior Reece Hampton (.302, 37 RBI) went to the Detroit Tigers in the 12th round. Hampton’s defense will be hard to replace, as he covered more ground in center field than just about anyone in the nation over the past three seasons. The left side of the infield will be completely new this season as 3B Jackson Mims (.328, 9 HR, 40 RBI) graduated in December and chose not to continue his baseball career, while SS Hunter Jones (.220, 29 RBI) finished his college career after holding down short for the past several seasons. Behind the plate, backup catcher Zack Smith (.235, 2 HR , 25 RBI) transferred to the University of Mount Olive for his junior season.

The bullpen will miss RHP Jonah Patten (4-1, 9 SV, 3.53 ERA) who began the season in a starting role but migrated back to his natural spot as the reliable closer. The pitching staff will also miss lefty Matt Horkey who logged 40.1 IP with 3 Saves and righty Phillip Perry, who logged 35.1 IP out of the bullpen.  Overall the bullpen lost 142 IP from last season.

Position Breakdown

Catcher – The Niners return one of C-USA’s best catchers in senior Harris Yett (.323, 6 HR, 37 RBI). Yett started 38 games behind the plate and 18 as the DH in 2018. The Johnny Bench Award Finalist for Nation’s best catcher was also a 2nd team all-conference selection. The lack of buzz about Yett in this year’s conference previews has us baffled. No matter, we’ll just let him do his talking on the field. You can count on Yett continuing to start the majority of the games behind the plate and occupying a spot in the heart of the batting order. Jacob Whitley, a sophomore transfer from Gardner-Webb, will likely see playing time when Yett takes a day off. Whitley will finally get his chance to step on the field for the Niners after being with the team last year and sitting out, per NCAA rules. Freshman Carter Foster, a 2nd team all-state selection as a high school senior, could also push for playing time, although he has been working in right field during the preseason. Opening day prediction: Harris Yett.

First Base – The Niners had 3 regular starters at 1B in 2018 and only 1 returns for 2019. Dominick Cammarata (.265, 8 HR, 30 RBI) settled in towards the end of the season after playing RF for much of the season. Dom is likely to shift back to right field, leaving an open competition for playing time at 1B. Senior Jesse Gonzales will be a candidate after making 3 starts last season and compiling 16 at-bats.  A player for fans to watch will be newcomer Rafi Vazquez, a juco transfer from Florence Darlington Technical College. Vazquez led FDTC in most of the offensive categories last season (.419, 43 R, 10 2B, 13 HR, 46 RBI, .829 SLG%) on his way to earning Region X Conference Player of the Year & NJCAA All-American honors. A left-handed batter, Rafi has shown that he has power to all fields, hitting multiple homers in preseason practice. Opening day prediction: Rafi Vazquez.

Second Base – Last season Tommy Bullock (44 starts) and Tate Pennington (14 starts) split time at 2B. Bullock’s move to SS opens up competition. Newcomer Carson Johnson is likely to emerge as the starter. The junior college transfer started both fall exhibitions at 2B and has continued to work there during the preseason. Johnson comes to the Niners after posting a strong summer league performance where he earned playoff MVP honors in the Western Major Baseball League of Canada (.355, 13 2B, 47 RBI, 72 R) with the Medicine Hat Mavericks. Sophomore Jake Whitcomb (.283, 2 RBI) looks to be the backup as he has gotten most of the reps there in preseason practice after appearing in 31 games a season ago. Opening day prediction: Carson Johnson.

Short Stop – The Niners lost 4 year starter Hunter Jones to graduation last season. For the 1st time since 2014 the Niners will have a new starting SS. Senior Tommy Bullock (.259, 37 RBI, 42 R) looks to be the guy.  Bullock started every game, mostly at 2B, while only committing 5 errors in 2018. An all-tournament selection season, Bullock hit the game-winning HR against Southern Miss to force a decisive C-USA semifinal game versus USM. Backing him up will likely be freshman Riley Cheek, who has seen a lot of work there this preseason. Cheek comes to the Niners after earning conference player of the year and 2nd team all-state honors while at Crest High School. Opening day prediction: Tommy Bullock.

Third Base – The surprise retirement of third baseman Jackson Mims means the left side of the infield will be completely new for the 2019 season. Freshman Josh Haney and sophomore Tate Pennington (.250, 9 RBI) have been alternating at third both in the fall and this preseason.  Pennington made 28 appearances last season, including 17 starts. Haney, joining the Niners out of SouthLake Christian Academy, was listed as one of the top incoming freshman for C-USA by Perfect Game. He also earned all-conference and all-state recognition and leaves SouthLake as their career leader in hits. Both of these guys have shown themselves capable of getting the job done this preseason. Who gets the start? Good question. Opening day prediction: Tate Pennington (went with experience on this one).

Outfield – Redshirt junior Drew Ober (.286, 41 RBI), junior Todd Elwood (.316, 16 RBI), and Dominick Cammarata  are returning starters that anchor a deep outfield group. Unfortunately Elwood is recovering from an offseason injury and is unlikely to be available opening day, but looks to be back in the mix within a  few weeks. Ober, who is underrated as an athlete, may well be the starter in center field. He has shown the ability to cover serious ground in center during preseason practice. Redshirt senior Dominick Cammarata has spent time in right field throughout the preseason, along with freshman Carter Foster, from Forbush High School. Foster joins the Niners after earning conference player of the year and all-state honors. Left field could be patrolled by one of two newcomers from the junior college ranks. Juniors Patrick Wheeler (Pitt Community College) and Austin Lynch (Redlands Community College) have both seen work in the outfield this preseason. Both Wheeler and Lynch were speedy outfielders with lead-off experience from their respective Junior Colleges. Wheeler has shown some power, homering against DAvidson in the Fall and going deep in spring scrimmages.  Sophomore Eric Lansinger and freshman Alec Roberts also provide depth. After a quiet freshman campaign Lansinger will look to continue to develop and work his way into the mix. Roberts is an interesting prospect. Although only a freshman, he possesses a physicality most seniors would be proud to have. It will be interesting to see what Coach Patrick does with him in the weight room. Roberts comes to the Niners after earning conference player of the year, all-region, and all-state honors in his native Alexandria, VA. Opening day prediction (left-to-right): Wheeler, Ober, Cammarata.

Designated Hitter – The staff has a lot of different looks that they can go with here. When Yett takes a day off from behind the plate, he will likely be in this role. The lefty Vazquez and righty Cammarata would seem to be good candidates depending on the matchup. Gonzales provides another lefty bat that could be used if Vazquez at 1B. Vazquez and Gonzales split time at DH and 1B in the Fall.  This could also be an opportunity for Elwood to provide some speed to the lineup as he works his way back from injury. The Niners had nine different players start in the DH spot last season, so expect more of the same in 2019. Opening day prediction:  Vazquez/ Gonzales

Pitching – The keys to this season’s pitching will be returners stepping forward, new faces emerging, and left-handed pitching.

Junior Matt Brooks (3-7, 5.35 ERA), along with seniors Joey Cooner (3-5. 5.43 ERA), Chase Gooding (4-2, 4.34 ERA), and Carson Pinkney (1-3. 2 SV, 4.54 ERA), head up a group that will be looking to reestablish its identity early in the season. Brooks looks ready to take a step forward and reclaim the role of Friday starter after giving way to Josh Maciejewski early last season. Cooner and Gooding may be called upon to complete the weekend rotation while Pinkney may take over as closer. Junior Colby Bruce (5-1, 4.54 ERA) has been working on his arm slot angle and has looked good this preseason. Sophomore Patrick Szczypinski (1-0, 13.50 ERA) got off to a strong start in his freshman campaign before falling off. With the offseason to work on his game, he has looked confident on the mound once again. Another interesting returner is redshirt freshman Eli Ellington. After sitting out last season, the big left-handed pitcher has looked good in the preseason. If Bruce, Szczypinski, and Ellington can carry their strong offseasons into the 2019 season they could form the nucleus of a strong Niners bullpen.

Coach Doty has 7 new arms to work with this season (4 freshman, 3 juco). Freshman Will Palinkas is a RHP from Providence High School that earned all-conference honors his last 2 years in high school. Palinkas pitched well in both fall exhibitions and has been working near the top of the rotation during the preseason. He could well be in the mix to start on the weekend. Freshman RHP Bryce McGowan earned 1st team all-conference honors at Cary High School and has also had a solid preseason, getting early inning work in the preseason. He may figure into the weekend bullpen or potentially start during the week. Freshman RHP Justin Offshanka, from Hough High School will not be hard for fans to spot. His side-armed delivery will give batters a different look when he comes out of the pen. He has put together a solid preseason and, like the other fresmen pitchers, should contribute right away. Freshman RHP Mason Herbert received all-conference and all-state recognition while at Pisgah High School. Coming off an injury, Herbert has recently been cleared to resume activities and should begin to work his way into the mix as the season progresses.

Junior LHP Ethan Earhart (Seward County CC) figured to be a big part of the staff’s plans before tearing his ACL at the beginning of fall practice. Not one to stay down long, Earhart has done an excellent job rehabbing and is already throwing off the mound. He could be back in the mix as soon as March, barring no further setbacks. Junior LHP Spencer Ard comes to the Niners from Redlands CC and has looked good in preseason scrimmages. With lefty pitching at a premium, he will need to have a solid season. Junior RHP Ryan Czanstkowski previously played at Connors State CC (alongside fellow Niner newcomer Carson Johnson) and looks to provide depth to the bullpen in his first season on campus.

As mentioned earlier, lefty pitching will worth keeping an eye on all season. There are 4 lefties on the roster (Cooner, Ellington, Ard, Earhart) and one (Earhart) is coming off an injury. That makes Ellington’s solid performance in the preseason even more promising.

Opening weekend prediction: Friday, RHP Matt Brooks. Saturday, LHP Joey Cooner. Sunday, Will Palinkas.

Closer prediction: Carson Pinkney

Weekday starter prediction: Chase Gooding, Bryce McGowan.

The Schedule

Every team in the country would like to win their conference tournament and secure their league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Diamond Niners are no different. What makes Charlotte’s position even more appealing is the opportunity to compete for an at-large bid due to the strength of both Conference USA and the Niners’ out-of-conference schedule.

Two games versus Clemson (@ Clemson, BB&T Ballpark Uptown), two games @ Arkansas, a matchup with NC State (BB&T Ballpark), a game @ South Carolina, and a home-and-home with Wake Forest give the Niners plenty of chances to build a resume. In league play, the 49ers’ season may well come down to the month of April. Yes, every league game is important, but the April schedule is absolutely brutal. Florida Atlantic and Rice come to town in back-to-back weekends before the Niners travel to Southern Miss and FIU.

Where do the Diamond Niners finish? We aren’t good enough to call our shot on this one. We’ll say this: the Niners have been picked to finish 6th in C-USA each of the past two seasons. They have finished higher in each case. Where did every preseason poll pick the team to finish in the league this season? You guessed it, 6th. We like our chances to keep the streak alive and surpass expectations. Will that add up to the 49ers first trip to the postseason since 2013? We’re about to find out.

Happy opening week, everybody!

 

Kevin and Nick

%d bloggers like this: